WASHINGTON — More than 600,000 veterans — 10% of all the Veterans Affairs patients — continue to wait a month or more for appointments at VA hospitals and clinics, according to data obtained by USA TODAY.
The VA has made some progress in dealing with the backlog of cases that forced former secretary Eric Shinseki to retire early this year. For instance, the VA substantially cut the overall number of worst-case scenarios for veterans — those who had waited more than four months for an appointment. That figure dropped from 120,000 in May to 23,000 in October. Much of that improvement occurred because patients received care from private providers.
Since May, the VA has been reduced the number of veterans waiting longest for care — its top priority — by 57%, according to James Hutton, a VA spokesman. From June to September, the VA completed 19 million appointments, an increase of 1.2 million compared with the same time last year.
"VA's goal continues to be to provide timely, high-quality healthcare for veterans," Hutton said in a statement. "Veterans and VA employees nationwide understand the need for reform, and VA is committed to putting these reforms into place. And while we have significantly improved capacity and access to care, we have not yet achieved our intended state — systemic and timely access across the board. It will be an ongoing and significant effort to reach our goals."
To recruit more health care providers, VA Secretary Robert McDonald has proposed pay hikes for VA doctors and dentists, Hutton said. McDonald announced a restructuring of the VA on Nov. 10.
The new data show that dozens of hospitals and clinics leave a quarter or more of all their patients waiting 30 days or more for an appointment.
• Some facilities still have extremely long wait times for basic care, including 64 that have average wait times over 60 days for new patients seeking primary care. They include major facilities, such as hospitals in Baltimore; Jacksonville, Fla.; Temple, Texas, and Atlanta. All have at least 30,000 pending appointments.
In Jacksonville, the average new patient is left waiting 77 days, a fact that previously obscured in the VA's data because it was averaged into the much-better performance of the nearby Gainesville hospital. Jacksonville only sees two-thirds of its patients within 30 days, the worst rate of any major facility in the VA system.
The VA is hiring more staff to deal with those delays, Hutton said.
• Ten facilities reported waits of more than three months for a new patient to see a specialist. At the top of the list: the Westmoreland, Pa., clinic, where patients are waiting 174 days — nearly six months — for a specialty appointment.
Thirty-three facilities have kept new patients seeking a mental-health appointments waiting for at least two months. Among those are large hospitals in Martinsburg, W.Va., Amarillo, Texas, and Tuskegee, Ala. And 10 clinics and hospitals kept established patients waiting at least three weeks longer than the patients wanted for mental health appointments.
• Some small locations have big waiting times, too. The Wagner, S.D., clinic near the Nebraska state line, has only 155 total appointments of any type pending — and its new patient wait time is 153 days.
The data looks at nearly 6 million appointments until Oct. 1 and scheduled through Veterans Health Administration.
Members of Congress continue to express dissatisfaction with the delays in disciplining VA employees involved in covering up the long wait times.
"The events of the last year have proven that far too many senior VA leaders have lied, manipulated data, or simply failed to do the job for which they were hired," said Rep. Jeff Miller, a Florida Republican and chairman of House Veterans' Affairs Committee, during a hearing Thursday. "It is also clear that VA's attempt to instill accountability for these leaders has been both nearly non-existent and rife with self-inflicted roadblocks to real reform."